Harvard’s library can’t afford journal subscriptions
April 23, 2012
Harvard University is probably the single richest school on the planet. Its endowment in 2011 was the biggest in the USA, at $31.728 billion — over 60% more than the next highest (Yale, at $19.374 billion).
It’s also in with a good shout as the best university in the world — the current Times Higher Education ranking has it equal second, behind only Cal Tech, level with Stanford, and ahead of Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge.
If any university should be able to pay all its journal subscriptions without problems, it’s Harvard.
So this memorandum, published last Tuesday, came as quite a shock:
To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units
From: The Faculty Advisory Council
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions
We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. … Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. …
The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. … Costs are now prohibitive.
Yes, you read it right. The world’s richest university can’t afford journal subscriptions. If anyone ever doubted that subscription prices had run wild, that the academic publishers who control access to the research we generate are out of control, this should dispel any remaining illusions that all is well with the current model.
Happily, the Harvard advisory council does not limit itself to whining, but has concrete suggestions for researchers (and also for the library). The actions they recommend for researchers on their staff are:
- Archive all their own papers as Green Open Access.
- Submit to open-access journals; “move prestige to open access”.
- Resign from editorial boards of non-OA journals if they won’t convert.
- Ask professional societies to take control of publishing in their fields.
- Recruit colleagues to join them in these measures.
The deal here is that Open Access is not a fringe issue any more. It’s not just something that idealistic young researchers like to shout about. It’s a major part of the strategy of one — several, actually — of the world’s top universities. I’d argue that it’s been a moral imperative for a long time. Now Open Access has become an economic imperative, too. (Anyone who doubts that it’s much, much cheaper than the subscription model should check out the numbers in my recent article at The Scientist: it seems to come out at about one eighth of the cost.)
For more analysis of Harvard’s public statement, see Harvard: we have a problem at Stephen Curry’s Reciprocal Space, and “No, we can’t” at the Library Loon’s Gavia Libraria. (The latter is particularly interesting because it offers a librarian’s perspective rather than the much more familiar researcher’s perspective.)